The most common jurisdiction of local government throughout the country is county government. Every state but three — Alaska, Rhode Island, and Connecticut — is composed of county governments of varying sizes and population. Although Rhode Island and Connecticut are geographically divided into counties, they do not have county governments. (Connecticut abolished them in 1960.) Alaska refers to counties as “boroughs” because they do not want to stigmatize them as tools of state government; in Louisiana they are called parishes. Loving County, Texas, is the least populous county with only 140 residents, while Los Angeles County is most populous — it's home to 9.2 million people. In total, there are 3,066 counties in the United States, each with its own local government.
Local government is responsible for a myriad of functions: removing and recycling garbage, granting marriage and divorce licenses, providing recreational facilities and programs, building and maintaining local transportation systems, educating children, providing police and fire protection, prosecuting criminals — the list goes on and on.
Counties trace their origins to England, and are modeled after the English shire of the Middle Ages. Back then, each shire was an administrative arm of the national government, as well as the province of local government. Early American colonists adopted the shire as they settled the Eastern seaboard.
Until World War II, county government was little more than a resource for states to administer the services of government. However, with the dramatic growth of suburbs beginning in the 1950s, the role of county government began to change. Over the past several decades, counties have assumed more responsibility and power from the states, and have begun to provide greater services to their residents. Today, county governments are important providers and administrators of critical government services.
County governments are unique in that, unlike cities, they are not incorporated, and unlike states, they have no reserved or constitutional powers. By and large, the primary task of county government is to administer the functions delegated to them by the state. This includes maintaining rural roads and highways, reassessing property values, keeping official records, providing food and welfare assistance, constructing and maintaining county buildings, awarding county contracts, and collecting taxes. In effect, a county government serves as a middleman between local and state government. For many residents of rural areas, county government provides a crucial link to the larger world.
Over the past two decades, the demands and expectations of county government have grown more substantial. Functions that were historically completed at the state and federal level are now the responsibility of county government. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, for example, county and local law enforcement and fire departments have played a large role in maintaining homeland security.
Types of County Government
A vast majority of county governments take one of three forms: commission, commission-administrator, and council-executive. In all three forms of government, county commission members receive little or no pay (these are part-time positions) and serve a term of four years. It's not uncommon for county commissioners to seek higher office at both the state and national level. In most states, the county executive position serves as a steppingstone for statewide office, particularly the statehouse. In 1986, Westchester County (New York) executive Andrew O'Rourke was defeated in his bid to unseat Governor Mario Cuomo. O'Rourke was later appointed to the state Supreme Court by Governor George Pataki.
Sometimes referred to as “board of commissioners” or “board of supervisors,” the commission is by far the most common form of county government. Two-thirds of the counties in the United States have a commission that contains three to five commission members. In a commission government, the elected board acts as both the legislative and executive branches. It has the power to adopt budgets, enact regulations, set policy direction, and appoint county officials. Most county commissions are composed of elected officials; some are composed of judges, town supervisors, and city officials.
In a commission-administrator system, the commission board appoints an administrator, who serves at the board's discretion. In some counties, the administrator is nothing more than a symbolic figure with little power. In other counties, the administrator has a wide range of responsibilities and duties, such as appointing department heads, drafting a budget, overseeing construction projects, and promulgating regulations.
Under this system, a county executive is elected by the county at large, and serves as the chief administrator. The county executive typically has the power to hire and fire department heads, formulate a budget, set policy direction, and veto legislation passed by the county council or commission. The primary difference between the commission-administrator and council-executive forms of government is the separation of powers principle — the elected county executive is totally independent from the council or commission.
Other County Officials
In addition to a county executive and county commissioners, most counties have four other important elected positions:
County clerk. The county clerk is responsible for keeping the official records of the county, such as birth and death certificates, mortgages, deeds, and adoption papers, as well as issuing marriage, automobile, and business licenses. The county clerk also oversees elections, and is usually elected to a four-year term.
Sheriff. The county sheriff is responsible for providing law enforcement to areas of the county that are not incorporated towns. Most county sheriffs oversee the county prison, and are responsible for enforcing court dates. The county sheriff's authority varies from county to county. Some are elected; others are appointed.
County attorney. Sometimes called the district attorney, prosecutor, or the state's attorney, the county attorney is the legal advocate for the county in all civil lawsuits brought against it. The county attorney also conducts criminal investigations and prosecutes lawbreakers.
County assessor. The county assessor has one of the most important jobs of local government: He or she is responsible for determining the value of residences within the county for tax purposes. The county assessor will periodically perform revaluations of all properties throughout the county to ensure that there is a consistent and fair tax basis, but does not assess new taxes.